Archive for September, 2011

‘Fresh’ isn’t always what you think it is (or what the FDA says it should be)

Posted by -- September 29, 2011

Fresh. Such a seemingly simple word, yet the subject of conflict, confusion and misleading food labels for a very long time.

To me fresh is pretty darn simple. Where food is concerned, according to my dictionary, it means either “recently harvested” or “not having been preserved, aged or processed.” But enter the murky world of food labeling and it’s a different story.

Back in 1940, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued one of the agency’s first guidelines regarding the term, saying that “fresh” could not be used to describe products subject to heat or chemical processing. In 1964, the FDA specifically targeted orange juice, saying no orange juice could be labeled “fresh” if it was a concentrate at any point before sale.

Manufacturers, however, battled the “fresh” orange juice ruling with a lot of creative maneuvers. Some said fresh was part of their brand trade mark, others contended that their oranges were picked just days before hitting the supermarket (regardless of whether the juice was made from concentrate or not).

The “fresh” orange juice controversy got big time publicity in 1991 when the FDA seized 24,000 cartons of Procter and Gamble’s Citrus Hill Fresh Choice juice from a warehouse. The made-from-concentrate juice was certainly not the only one in the supermarket at the time using the word “fresh” against FDA guidelines, but as former FDA chief counsel Peter Barton Hutt said, “(they) just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  (During meetings with the FDA prior to the agency’s action, Procter and Gamble offered to add the words “means fresh taste” to the carton side, which the FDA said would only repeat the deceptive word “fresh” again.

Have things improved much since the orange juice “squeeze” twenty years ago?  Not according to the National Consumers League (NCL) – which took part in persuading the FDA at the time to take a “firm stand” on using the term “fresh” on a fruit or vegetable product that has been reconstituted or remade from concentrate.

100% vine ripened tomatoes? Not exactly. A label check show this sauce is made from tomato paste.

According to Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL, “the marketplace has become littered once again with false and misleading labels for products, for example, tomato products that are reconstituted from industrial tomato concentrate, pretending to be ‘made from fresh tomatoes,’ ‘packed in season,’ or ‘packed from vine-ripened tomatoes’.”

In April the NCL sent a letter  to the FDA about the false-fresh tomato labels, saying claims such as “uses only the finest tomatoes” are “false and misleading.”

And two of the products I found in the tomato section of the supermarket bears out their concern.

The first, Contadina® Tomato Sauce,  makes the claim that “Contadina picks the Freshest Tomatoes!” But an ingredient check shows the “Freshest Tomatoes!” are actually a tomato puree made from water and tomato paste.

The second, ShopRite brand Tomato Sauce, claims to be “Made with 100% vine-ripened tomatoes,” which turn out to be a tomato concentrate made from, once again, water and tomato paste.

Other tomato products the NCL list on its website include:

  • Del Monte Seafood Cocktail Sauce that claims “Made from California Vine-ripened Tomatoes” on the front of the package when, in fact, it is made from concentrate (tomato paste and added water).An image of a vine-ripened tomato appears directly below the claim.
  • Classico Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce that states on the label “In colorful Naples, pasta sauces are pure and simple, with ripe, red tomatoes…” when the product is actually made from concentrate. The claim has been deleted from new “value size” 44 oz jars of the sauce, but still appears on the label of the smaller, 24-oz. product.
  • Contadina Pizza Sauce and Contadina Puree that state “Contadina picks the Freshest Tomatoes,” and “Our vine-ripened Roma style tomatoes are grown to a rich red color before picking…” (a picture on the front label depicts vine-ripened tomatoes and a tomato field and the term “ROMA STYLE TOMATOES” appears on the front of the package below the Contadina brand name). The products, in fact, are made from concentrate.Other products with misleading labels identified by NCL are Francesco Rinaldi Original Traditional Pasta Sauce and Gia Russa Tomato Puree.

One would think food processors would be fresh out of such misleading claims of freshness by now. But, if nothing else, you simply have to give them credit for always managing to come up with a fresh one.

Which is why you have to read the ingredients, not just the claims.

Corn sugar is a fructose-free commodity — whereas high fructose corn syrup, well, isn’t

Posted by -- September 27, 2011

In reading blog posts, news reports and opinion pieces, it’s clear that our information stream is anything but clear.

The terms corn syrup, corn sugar, HFCS and just plain syrup are being used haphazardly and interchangeably by both bloggers and professional journalists. Fifty million dollars buys a lot of advertising. And that big wad of money, spent by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) in its attempt to deceive consumers by switching the name of high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar,” has done one thing very well, confuse just about everyone.

Every consumer has the right to clear and correct food labeling. I’m not making this up. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says so, too. There are many important reasons people need to know what’s in the food they buy, but just wanting to know is good enough. Since the government got involved in officially overseeing names and claims made by manufacturers way back in 1906 with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, companies and trade associations have been fighting to have things their way.

Corn rules American Agriculture, and the Corn Refiners Association is a very powerful lobby. Elected state representatives from our corn belt states have sent in numerous comments to the FDA docket in support of this name switcheroo petition to rebrand HFCS “corn sugar” (with the interesting exception of Minnesota’s office of the Governor, first supporting the petition and then this May, changing its position to having no position).

This name game from the CRA is no little matter or just a case of semantics. It’s an extremely important attack on the rights of consumers to clear, truthful and consistent labeling. Your opinions are vital in this matter, so please let the FDA and FTC know how you feel about this.

To help clear things up, here is a short list of sweeteners, what they are, and what they are called.

 

The makers of Karo syrup want you to know that their product contains NO high fructose corn syrup!

HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP

HFCS is a man-made, highly-processed  laboratory-created concoction in which glucose in corn syrup is further fermented and processed to create a desired amount of much-sweeter fructose. (Fructose does not occur naturally in corn). The manufacturing of HFCS is a highly complicated process, but the product is typically less expensive than sugar. It was first created in the late 1950s and hit the marketplace during the ’70s as a sweetening ingredient in soft drinks, its use soon expanding to almost every conceivable processed food product. HFCS is either 42 or 55 percent fructose and not available for direct purchase by consumers.

CORN SYRUP

Sloppy reporters and careless bloggers often incorrectly use the term “corn syrup” in referring to HFCS. Corn syrup is recognized by the FDA as a different ingredient, one derived from corn starch that is converted to glucose, the amount of which varies according to how much processing is done.

Corn syrup company Karo® goes to great lengths to let consumers know that their corn syrup product contains no HFCS (see photo).

CORN SUGAR

First off, no matter what the CRA wants us to think, high fructose corn syrup is NOT “corn sugar”.  Corn sugar has long been  recognized as its own unique product – one that is comprised of dextrose (also called glucose) derived from corn starch. Corn sugar also contains NO fructose. It is used in home brewing, baking and cooking.

SUGAR

Sugar, one of the oldest natural sweeteners only comes from sugar-cane or sugar beets.

It seems the intent of the Corn Refiners Association is to blur these distinctions – and create, rather than alleviate, consumer confusion.

If you are going to make fake food, call it what it is

Posted by -- September 22, 2011

In case years of fake foods have made you forget what a real blueberry looks like. (Bottom photo shows a serving of "blueberry flavored fruit pieces.")

Does anyone remember Ritz® mock apple pie? Apparently we ate a lot of Ritz crackers when I was a kid, because I recall reading the recipe numerous times on the package back, as well as having a high level of intrigue with the concept; an apple pie stuffed with crackers not apples? It seemed totally absurd to me, even at the age of ten.

But at least it was called a “mock” apple pie.

I thought of that cracker apple filling the other day while in the supermarket. Two of the first three  dietary deceptions we are reporting on here at Food Identity Theft are the bogus blueberry foods and the tomato sauce scam, and I saw a lot of both of them yesterday.

For example, there’s Jiffy® Blueberry muffin mix, with a package featuring yummy-looking muffins containing what certainly appears to be blueberries and a recipe for blueberry coffeecake and blueberry pancakes and waffles on the side.

Not only does the “blueberry” muffin mix contain not a hint of actual blueberries (although it does contain “partially hydrogenated lard,” a heart-stopping description I had never before seen in years of reading  labels), but it encourages consumers to bring this culinary chicanery home by making their families fake blueberry coffeecake, pancakes and waffles.

Then there’s ShopRite® brand Blueberries & Cream instant oatmeal. The package is beautiful showing large, plump blueberries and a pitcher of cream set against a farm scene. The ingredient list, however, isn’t as pretty. The “blueberry” part of the deal is called “blueberry flavored fruit pieces” consisting in part of dried figs, dried corn syrup solids, blueberry juice concentrate, numerous artificial colors and artificial flavor.

My favorite “where’s the fruit?” product from that trip is Kellogg’s® Fruity Snacks mixed berry. The pretty red, blue and purple package shows strawberries, raspberries and blueberries morphing into the fruit-shaped Fruity Snacks. The package bottom says “made with real fruit” and in extra small print “see side panel for details.” However, the only mention of anything remotely fruity on the label is an apple puree concentrate.

The use of real fruit and vegetable ingredients in numerous packaged foods is so scarce that you will often see big print on a package saying “made with real fruit!” In one example I saw, a carrot cake mix, which made a really big deal over the fact there were actual carrot pieces added in the mix! Imagine that, a carrot cake with carrots in it!

And speaking of Food Identity Theft, the Associated Press is credited with releasing two documents last week from the FDA regarding the Corn Refiners Association’s attempt to do a switcheroo on the name high fructose corn syrup and have it rebranded as “corn sugar.”

In one, a March 2010 email  from Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, Taylor is quoted as saying, “it would be affirmatively misleading to change the name of the ingredient after all this time, especially in light of the controversy surrounding it.” He went on to say, “If we allow it, we will rightly be mocked both on the substance of the outcome and the process through which it was achieved.”
Another document brought to light by the AP is a July, 2011 letter from the FDA’s Barbara Schneeman to the Corn Refiners Association, in which the association was asked to “re-examine your websites and modify statements that use the term ‘corn sugar’ as a synonym for (high fructose corn syrup).”

And while we’re on the topic of the FDA, have you sent your opinion in to the agency yet on this high fructose corn syrup name game?  If not, I’d recommend you do so here now!

Tell the FDA what you think about calling HFCS corn sugar!

Posted by -- September 20, 2011

If you’ve always wanted to give the FDA a piece of you mind, now is the time.

As I mentioned in my first blog, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) submitted a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar” back in September of last year. With all the buzz on the Internet, to date there are only 127 posted public submissions on the FDA’s web site.

As the last update seems to have been posted in July, I called the FDA to ask how many they’ve received since then, but haven’t yet gotten a clear response on how many more there are and when they will get online.

Numbers aside, if you haven’t sent in a comment yet, get going and let the FDA know your feelings on this (click here to go to the FDA web site to comment). You don’t have to have a degree in chemistry or be an attorney to give your opinion.  The CRA claims that we consumers are “confused” by the name “high fructose corn syrup” and to clear up that confusion, they must be allowed to (legally) call HFCS “corn sugar.” I say “legally” because they’ve already started the switcheroo, spending millions of dollars of advertising to really confuse us.

So what are people saying?

I’ve started reading through the posted comments at the FDA site, regulations.gov. The vast majority of folks are flat out against allowing this name change game to succeed, and one of my favorites is from the CRA itself!

CRA disagrees with the comments by Shape Up America!, the National Consumers League, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, and Marion Nestle, Ph.D.

The Consumers Union are the publishers of Consumer Reports ®, and Marion Nestle, Ph.D is frequently quoted BY the Corn Refiners Association most notably on the “Experts” page of their Sweet Surprise site.

It goes on to say the name switch would be “meaningful” to consumers, and would promote, rather than impede, fair competition among sweeteners. This is a “competition?”

Part of Marion Nestle’s comment to the FDA says: “…the name change is not in the public interest. Its only purpose is to further the commercial interests of members of the Corn Refiners, and that is not one the FDA should be concerned about.”

The Consumer Union has this to say: “Consumers Union strongly opposes this petition. Such a change would confuse, if not mislead consumers to believe that ‘corn sugar’ was naturally occurring in corn and simply extracted as a sugar…particularly misleading in products labeled as ‘natural.'”

HFCS, by the way, is a man-made ingredient that is created in a laboratory.

Other consumer comments were a bit less polite, such as “Call it what it is! HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRYP!!!!”  Another respondent noted that: “Contrary to the assertion in the petition, this requested name change is a blatant attempt to confuse and mislead consumers…Please deny this petition and do not allow HFCS to be relabeled as corn sugar. Corn growers and HFCS producers are engaging in a cynical and self-serving attempt to put lipstick on their pig of a product.”

And then there was this: “The Corn Refiners Association, no doubt upset by the consumer backlash against high fructose corn syrup, has a simple solution to their problem. They want to rename HFCS ‘corn sugar.’ That way, all of those silly consumers will read the label, see no HFCS, and they won’t know that they are eating HFCS even though they don’t want to. This is, of course, outrageous…”

A practicing physician commented: “It is outrageous to me that this deception would be allowed in our democratic nation. The American people deserve better!”

This comment is my personal favorite: “Unless there is a better reason to change the name other than to boost HFCS’s image, please do not allow this change. If you do, then let’s allow lactose to be milk sugar, honey to be flower sugar, maple syrup tree sugar”.

Hopefully the FDA will be posting additional comments, and hopefully those will include some from readers of this blog. Here’s the link again to add your voice to this issue.

I’m still waiting to hear back from the FDA, I’ll keep you posted.